The Smart Village Initiative- An Overview
The Narendra Modi-led BJP government is soon going to celebrate the second anniversary of its flagship urban redevelopment and retrofitting programme, the Smart Cities Mission. Since its establishment, the current government has tried and made efforts to live up to its policy of Speed+Scale, and the Smart Cities Mission is no exception to it. In less than 200 days, 97 cities had come forward to put together their ‘smart cities proposals’ in order to compete against one another to gain a spot in the shortlist of 100 smart cities.
The Smart Cities Mission has been effective into a large-scale urban awakening in our cities, with certain amount of support along with disapproval from many walks of public life. While many of the critiques seem to be driven out of superficial knowledge, some valid points have been raised that have to be pondered upon.
The evaluation of the SCM raised one of the biggest challenges in the discourse of a developed India. Smart cities alone would not suffice the challenges that lie in the way of a holistic development for all Indian citizens. The 2011 census has shown inequalities in the provisions of basic amenities between rural and urban India. Two-thirds of the total Indian population resides in the villages, and with the haphazard urbanization that has took place in the recent years, the rural-urban divide has grown stronger.
The lack of opportunities has driven the rural masses into the cities, and by the end of 2030, half of the Indian population is expected to live in cities. These crucial findings from the 2011 census have driven the following dialogue:
If there can be a smart city, why not a smart village?
Each year, more and more people are migrating to the ever-burdening cities in the quest for an improved quality of life, education, employment, healthcare and technology options. As this migration trend increases the burden on already-collapsing urban agglomerations, the need has been felt to create Smart villages. Consequently, the Prime Minister has launched the Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Rurban Mission or the SPMRM. The intent of the mission is to disburden the cities by ‘combining the spirit of the villages, and facilities of cities.’
The major outcomes envisioned from the SPMRM have been to:
Bridge the rural urban divide (economic, technological and those related to facilities and services)
Spread development in the region
Attract investment into rural areas
Stimulate local economic development (an emphasis on reducing rural poverty and unemployment)
The smart village initiative has been flagged off by the Prime Minister in February 2016 with the clear objectives of creating rural-urban clusters, having ‘a rural soul and urban amenities’ along with the focus on equity and inclusiveness.
A list of parameters has been formulated, ensuring a standard of development procedure. This list includes 14 parameters along which the objectives are intended to be fulfilled:
Skill development training linked to economic activities,
Agro-processing, Agri Services, storage and warehousing,
Fully equipped mobile health units
Upgrading school infrastructure
Provision of piped water supply
Solid and liquid waste management
Village streets and drains
Village road connectivity
LPG gas connections
Electronic delivery of citizen centric services
The government has started off the initiative with an upright intent and clear objectives. Various stakeholders like politicians, public big-shots and corporate houses have been made in the process. The government had managed to rope in the executive layer of the Indian democracy by launching the SaansadAdarsh Gram Yojna or SAGY. Under this scheme, each Member of Parliament was asked to adopt a village, and upon signing up, was equipped with adequate funding and support to develop it. The Prime Minister had himself adopted two villages- Nagepur and Jayapur under the SAGY. Various corporate houses were asked to adopt villages under Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR.
The Ground Reality: A case of Nagepur
Despite the tall claims under the SAGY and all of the corporate hue and cry, inadequacy is there to be found in the rural development story of India. The case of Nagepur, one of the twin villages adopted by the Prime Minister modi, bears open testimony to the faultiness that lies in the development process of Indian villages.
Nagepur is a village 20km away from Varanasi, the city that has elected the Prime Minister to the Indian parliament. The village has close to 500 households and the inhabitants are predominantly Hindu. The village lies in the rural-urban fringe of Varanasi and can be directly accessed through Varanasi-Allahabad National Highway. The population is primarily occupied with agriculture. While the village has traditionally been home to the silk weaving community, a few of them are left owing to the dearth of employment opportunities in the village.
The ‘smart village’ has failed to involve the rural-urban fringe zone in its development process. The village is inhabited along the Rajatalaab bazaar- a commercial activity centre that could activate the economic development of Nagepur and all the adjoining villages. A visit to the bazaar highlights the sorry state of affairs. Disorganised vendors, fruit-sellers along with haphazard parking of auto-rickshaws and cars, present the woeful story of multiple spatial uses functioning together in haphazard manner, and trying to push each other away. The haphazard informal vending is done on a service road alongside the national highway, which poses a grave threat to pedestrian safety in the market.
The village has a varied typology of residences. The 'pradhan' or head of the local government body lives in the core settlement area. He lives in a 'pucca' house that has a plinth, multiple rooms, a kitchen, terrace, a courtyard, and is mostly made of bricks and concrete. The house is one of the biggest in the village. The neighboring houses are 'kacha' structures with varied typologies. Every house has its own 'gau-shala'. The bigger ones house their cattle in their 'dwara' or storage spaces, along with their agricultural produce. The smaller houses do not have a dedicated space for their cows, so they tie them in the temporary spaces built around their homes. Many of the kacha and pucca houses have courtyards that allow ample natural light and ventilation. These courtyard also provide more intimate spaces for the womenfolk to do their daily chores such as sieving the seeds and chopping vegetables.
Newer residences have been built in the village as parts of the state government sponsored rural housing scheme- the Lohia Gram Awas Yojna. Under this scheme, many villagers have their houses built as pucca houses having bricks and concrete. These houses provide a better roof-under-the-head to the residents but they are far from being smart-homes. The typology of these newer houses does not respond to any of the existing typologies present in the village. The house has no courtyard and it goes completely dark during the power cuts. The children have to play outside and these houses have their front gates always open so as to receive ventilation and lighting for the women to do their chores.
Equity and Inclusiveness?
A handful of the many amenities ensured by the government confirm to the list of parameters it had set before swinging into action. The solar panels are set up to assist to government’s efforts to provide 18-hour electricity in the village. Every household in the village has been equipped with toilet modules and public infrastructure like bus-stops and schools have been upgraded. Rural community centre or Nand Ghar has been provided along with upgraded Anganwadis. Howewer, little attention has been paid for social and economic reforms for the people. The case of two marginalized inhabitants of the village draws the attention towards the government’s failure to ensure holistic community development in the village.
Adjacent to the house of the Pradhan is a small kacchcha house of a widowed woman named Sunita. Sunita’s family live in a small house made up of mud and hay. The house is a rectangular enclosure having no ventilation or natural light. The thatched roof is made up of hay. The house is divided into two portions. The front portion is used as for kitchen and sleeping spaces while the back portion has storage and living spaces. The house contains a mezzanine storage space as well. Sunita is amongst the poorest people of the village and has no stable job, other than labouring in the farms. Her lack of employment portrays the lack of opportunity for the women in the village.
The womenfolk do not have any formalized employment and are mainly engaged in household chores. The women of the village are mostly illiterates those having higher literacy levels have attended the primary school only. This has led to recent demands from the villagers to develop a higher secondary school for girls, as they find it hard to go to schools outside the village.
Mungeri is an elderly villager living two lanes away from the pradhan’s house. He lives in a mud house with his wife and daughters and the sons have their occupations in Varanasi. Mungeri’s family has been weaving clothes for decades in the village. He has his handloom machine installed in his mud-house. His machine still works in the old fashioned way while new and innovative machines have revolutionized the weaving industry. He is one of the few people left in the village to work for the legacy industries of the village. Increased prices and absence of easily available loans to procure yarn drove many weavers out of business and today there are barely 75 families left in the traditional source of livelihood. Most of them now either work as agricultural labourers or have migrated to Varanasi for alternate occupations. Mungeri, 61, who had managed to pull along with his handloom, is struggling to survive. With his wife playing the sole helper, he is earning a meagre of Rs. 100 for his 3-4 day of handloom work.
The stories of Sunita and Mungeri highlight the shortage of vision in developing Nagepur as a smart village. The community, along with its incapacitated sections, lacks equity and inclusiveness pertaining to the lack of employment opportunities and skill-up gradation measures in Nagepur.
Findings and Suggestions
Based on the study of Nagepur village, these findings and suggestions have emerged for any of the stakeholders to take note of:
The government must fix its idea of 'smart' development to include many other socio-economic challenges faced by the rural people. The current government measures are laudable, but more measures need to be taken to revive the cottage industries in the village, and come up with a economically self-sustained village model to minimize the trend of rural-urban migration.
Despite having a rural way of life, Nagepur shows little signs of social evils like open defecation and alcoholism, but it needs to make further efforts to do away with illiteracy and promote equal opportunity for all genders.
The working conditions of farmers, potters and weavers need to be made 'smart' as per their occupational needs and standards.
Harmony should be made between various tiers of governance to ensure smoother development in the village.
In the on-going narrative of smart-cities and smart-villages, due efforts have had been made by the government over the past 2 years. Nagepur, the village adopted by the Prime Minister Modi, bears testimony to the government’s interest to make India smart through developments in various layers of habitats. The village has been in the media limelight since its adoption, and various developments are there to be noticed. This, however doesn’t negate the fact that little thought have been given into holistically improving the quality of life of villagers.
The Smart Cities Mission has been able to involve the masses into a discourse, but the same has not happened in the case of Smart Village Initiative. Various pan-city and area-wise development proposals under the mission have been able to capture the imagination of citizens from all walks of life. These smart-city proposals are sought by the government and are open to public debate on various social platforms. Strikingly, any of such efforts and initiatives are yet to be realized in the form of a cohesive vision and mission for smart and self-sustainable villages in India.
In the Smart Village Initiative, little expertise has been sought from the architects and urban planners in analysing the people, their needs, aspirations, habitat and their eco-system as a whole. Various schemes for sanitation, housing, technological up gradation etc. have been grouped together and pigeonholed into the village. Infrastructure under these schemes lacks the scope to be applied to every village as a module. The Lohiya Gram Awas built in Nagepur is one prominent example of such a case. The government needs to engage architects and planners in the same manner it did in the SCM, albeit in a lower hierarchy. The government should seek proposals of smart villages from architects and planners. Specific focus should lie upon the socio-economic development of the rural population; and for it to be achieved holistically; architects and planners should be included in the decision-making loop right from the grass-root layer.
The recommendation comes in the wake of a petition filed by Jagdeep Desai, and architect and academician. The petition asks the Prime Minister to utilize the huge potential of human resources of the highly qualified architects in India by creating administrative positions for them on a local level.